SACRAMENTO -- California sued the federal government Thursday to force a decision on the state's request to enforce tough new rules aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.
The long-expected lawsuit ups the ante in the showdown between Gov. Schwarzenegger and the Bush administration over a state law that forces automakers to adopt new technology beginning with the 2009 model year.
"Our health and our environment are too important to delay any longer," said Schwarzenegger, announcing the lawsuit on the Capitol steps with Attorney General Jerry Brown. "It has been nearly two years since we have asked the federal government for this waiver, and we have not gotten it yet. So I think it is time now to step it up."
Automakers say the new standards would drive up the price of cars.
"Enhancing energy security and improving fuel economy are priorities to all Americans, but a patchwork quilt of regulations at the state level is not the answer," the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said in a statement.
The alliance, arguing that there should be one federal standard for tailpipe emissions, has filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Fresno to block the new rules.
California's lawsuit accuses the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of unreasonably delaying action on the state's request for a waiver that would allow it to adopt the rules. The request was filed in December 2005.
But the lawsuit, filed in a federal court in Washington, D.C., would become irrelevant if EPA chief Stephen Johnson makes a decision soon, which he has said he would do.
"Administrator Johnson has repeatedly stated that he will make a decision on the waiver request by the end of the year and he still plans to do so," said EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Wood.
The agency has typically approved such waivers for California. But if they don't approve this one, Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican, and Brown, a Democrat, promised to go to court again.
The state will "sue again and sue again and sue again until we get it," the governor said. "We're going to win in the end."
The federal government holds the power to set national air pollution regulations. But the Clean Air Act gives California the right to adopt its own rules -- as long as the EPA gives its stamp of approval through a waiver. State regulators have long used the special status to force carmakers to reduce emissions of smog-making gases.
The state has been asking for waivers since 1969 and has had more than 40 partially or fully approved, according to the state Air Resources Board.
But this is the first time the state has tried to adopt regulations to control greenhouse gases. The gases don't directly produce smog, but contribute to global warming, which can wreak havoc with the Earth's atmosphere, according to scientists.
Automakers say the only way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to improve fuel economy and that only the federal government has the power to set fuel standards. But California's case was strengthened in September when a federal judge in Vermont ruled that states can regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.
If California succeeds, other states also may act. At least 14 states are poised to follow, according to California's lawsuit. If the new rules are adopted in all 14 states, it would be the equivalent of taking 22 million cars off the road by 2020, Schwarzenegger said.
The state's Air Resources Board estimates the upgrades would boost the price of a car by about $300. But automakers peg the cost at around $3,000 per car and say that not all cars could be upgraded, especially larger ones.
That could mean some types of cars would become unavailable in California, said Charles Territo, spokesman for the automakers alliance.
The new regulations, called for in a law passed in 2002, would be phased in over several years, beginning with model year 2009. By 2016, an automaker's fleet on average must produce 30% fewer greenhouse gases than it does today.
The lawsuit asks the EPA to act on the waiver now because manufacturers will begin marketing 2009 cars as early as January 2008.
Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the state air board, said the standards could be reached with "completely known technology," such as more efficient drive trains and steering devices.
The vehicle regulations are considered a key pathway to attain aggressive greenhouse gas targets set by another law passed last year that calls for a cut in the state's overall greenhouse gases by 25% by 2020.
"If we don't get these cars that we know are out there ... we will experience greater global warming and we will have to find emissions reductions elsewhere -- from our industries and from our cities," Nichols said.
For the Valley's agriculture industry, that could translate into costly new rules, said Manuel Cunha Jr., who heads the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno. For instance, regulators might force growers to replace older farm vehicles, said Cunha, who supports the state's EPA waiver request.
"If they don't get [the waiver]," he said, "then they're going to go after everything."